I'm no foal but I like horsing around - learning to horse ride as an adult with a hidden disability
I have a lifelong neurological condition called Dyspraxia (or Developmental Co-ordination Disorder) which affects my movement as well as my processing skills, meaning I find it hard to co-ordinate myself, balance, remember sequences and learn new skills. I was diagnosed as an adult; a lifetime of frustration, embarrassment and difficulty has now been explained.
One of the most limiting aspects of my dyspraxia is the lack of co-ordination, balance and proprioception (knowing where my body is in space). It’s meant that I’ve had lots of falls over the years. I’ve fractured both of my ankles, completely torn both of the main ligaments in both of my ankles, and have to wear lace-up boots now to support me. When I was diagnosed, this was the main thing I wanted help to prevent happening repeatedly. It’s tiring bumping into things and having accidents all the time. I’m only 32 but on average my ‘dyspraxidents’ take a few months out of my working life every couple of years, usually because I’m on crutches, or at worst in a wheelchair. I’ve had physiotherapy on and off for years, and I’ve tried various forms of exercise to help. Whilst they’ve all helped a bit, the underlying trouble is that exercise is quite difficult for me, and that makes it tricky to carry on with regularly. Having dyspraxia, I have a fairly bad relationship with my body as an adult. It never does what I want it to do. It moves in an awkward, clumsy, ungraceful way. In exercise groups I can’t process the instructions quickly enough and I don’t know how to make my body do what I’ve been told to do. I get frustrated with myself and other people sometimes get frustrated with me too, thinking I’m deliberately not listening or not trying. I was always that person picked last in P.E. at school, because I was a total liability to have on a team! It’s been difficult to maintain my self esteem because my disability is invisible but at the same time my difficulties are so visible, and society perceives them as negative ‘clumsy, messy, disorganised’ are hardly traits that anyone wants associated with them.
Having never found an exercise I can get on with, and doing my own research into dyspraxia, I came across the idea of horse riding as a form of exercise which is beneficial to people like me. I’ve had a love of animals for as long as I can remember. It seemed like a great idea. Only it also seemed terrifying. So many things could go wrong. But by then my mobility was already becoming such a problem that I was willing to give it a try. Before I could come up with every reason not to embark on learning a new skill as an adult, my husband had researched local riding schools and booked me a lesson, “don’t worry they know all about your dyspraxia and they can definitely teach you”. Spurred on by his support (he did have to drive me to and from my first few lessons to stop me from backing out) I decided to give it a shot.
Eight months on and I’ve found the first and only exercise I’ve ever loved. I can walk, trot and I’m learning to canter. I’ve been out on hacks in the sunshine. I’ve been challenged every time, but I have enjoyed every lesson. At first I was terrified, and it was difficult to even get on and sit in the right position when the horse moved. I struggled to remember where to hold and what to do with my legs. When my riding teacher Sarah asked me to move the lower part of my leg, I couldn’t picture that bit of my body to move it separately from the rest. My awareness of my body is much better now. It still takes me time to process instructions, when I’m asked to change speed or stop my reaction time is slow, as it goes through a lot of extra steps in my brain to convert the instruction into a movement. I don’t have a sense of direction and forget my left and right, so my teacher adapts instructions to make them easier to follow. I prefer instructions as small steps, with demonstrations, and I need lots of repetition. My working memory is not very strong, so I often forget what I’m doing mid-way through a sequence, and need prompting. I am fortunate to have a great sense of humour and most of my riding lesson is spent laughing. Exercise has finally become fun. I’m getting fitter! It’s helped reduce pain in my back and my muscles. I have hypermobile joints, and hypotonia (low muscle tone) which contribute to the problems I have with moving. Riding is helping me tone up my core muscles as well as the muscles in my legs which prevent me from falling over, without it feeling like I’m doing physiotherapy. Having more awareness of where my body is and how to balance it around turns and over obstacles on a moving horse is something I never thought I’d be able to do. It’s helped no end that I have had teachers who are willing to adapt their teaching to help me, and the patience to support me to learn. Every small achievement and every new thing I learn is massive for me, and they’ve celebrated it all with me.
And then there’s the beautiful special horses that work at the riding school as well. There is something special about being supported to exercise by another living being. They seem to know more than me how to help me move. They even give me hints! I find it tricky to remember how to take the bridle off and I ride a horse which turns each bit of its head to me in order to remind me which strap needs to be removed next! They are endlessly patient with my disability, in a way most humans aren’t. They tolerate my mistakes and don’t make me feel any less for not being able to ‘get it’ straight away. I’ve been learning to care for horses at the stables too, and it’s rewarding learning new skills which benefit them in return. I like to learn horse care by reading and learning in a classroom, followed by being able to practise the skills as often as I can, but I often need more support and supervision than other people at first. Because I’ve been open about my dyspraxia and my riding school are happy to adapt things for me I have been able to learn more than I thought was possible, and it’s greatly improved my quality of life and mental health living with my disability. It’s helped my confidence no end, as I’ve finally proved to myself that I can learn and enjoy exercise, as long as it’s done in the right way for me.
Dr Emma Tremaine trained as a medical doctor and psychiatrist before starting up a social enterprise specialising in comprehensively supporting adults and young people with Dyspraxia (The Dyspraxic Doctor). She also provides regular emotional and social skills therapy for children and young people who have a neurodevelopmental diagnosis (including Autism/Aspergers and ADHD). Dr Emma has Dyspraxia herself and is a passionate writer and speaker about neurodiversity, mental health and her own experience becoming a doctor with a hidden disability. She also enjoys horse riding, yoga, amateur sewing and making people laugh.
You can read about the benefit horse riding has to children with dyspraxia in this journal article:
J Altern Complement Med. 2014 Jan;20(1):19-23. doi: 10.1089/acm.2013.0207. Epub 2013 Oct 2.